Monday, September 14, 2009

Obituary - Jim Carroll

On Friday 11th September 2009, Jim Carroll, died aged 60. His ex-wife Rosemary states the cause of death was a heart attack suffered at his Manhattan home. According to Carroll’s website,, he was at his desk working at the time of death. Carroll was famed for his Basketball Diaries that chronicle his wild youth, and for fronting THE JIM CARROLL BAND that was made famous by the classic ‘People Who Died’.
Born on 1st August 1949 as the son of a bar owner, James Dennis Carroll spent his childhood in Manhattan’s Lower East Side attending Roman Catholic Schools (something he would touch on with future lyrics). It was following a move to Inwood at the northern end of Manhattan that Carroll won a basketball scholarship at Trinity - an elite private school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
It was at Trinity that his love affair with writing began as he spent time at St. Mark’s Poetry Project in the East Village, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, while simultaneously acquiring the status of teenage basketball star. It was here that he started writing his diaries, the diaries that became the infamous Basketball Diaries.
His life at this stage mixed sport with poetry and an (un)healthy appetite for drugs. The diaries begin laden with innocence and hope as Carroll writes of feeling enthused via his first day in an organized basketball league. They culminate with the degrading, downbeat confession of being, “Totally zonked, and all the dope scraped or sniffed clean from the tiny cellophane bags. I can see the Cloisters with its million in medieval art out the bedroom window. I got to go in and puke. I just want to be pure,” as Carroll has been reduced to a Times Square hustling junkie.
The diaries were not published until 1978 by which time his writing had already won Carroll cult status, including a 1967 self-published pamphlet of poems entitled Organic Trains and a successor 4 Ups And 1 Down from 1970. 1973’s Living At The Movies was issued by a mainstream publisher, won critical acclaim and a wider audience. The diaries were reissued in 1980 followed by a film in 1995 with Leonardo DeCaprio playing Carroll’s part.
During the early 70s, Carroll continued with his diaries, eventually seeing the light as The Basketball Diaries’ follow-up, Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries, 1971-1973. This was an equally frenetic period for Carroll. He had become a regular on the Downtown Poetry Scene with the likes of Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac hailing him as “the new voice”. He contributed dialogue to some of Andy Warhol’s films after finding his way into Warhol’s Factory after a brief stint at Columbia University. It was during this period that he lived with both Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe; the former proving pivotal to his musical future.
To escape the drugs, Carroll had to escape New York and fled to Bolinas, a small artistic community north of San Francisco where he met his future wife - Rosemary Klemfuss in 1978. The marriage would end in divorce.
It was in the late 70s that Carroll’s musical legacy ignited in a spontaneous fireball as Patti Smith brought him on-stage to deliver some of his poetry as the Patti Smith Band provided the backing soundtrack. Encouraged by the response Carroll formed his own band, The Jim Carroll Band. In even more fortuitous circumstances, the band caught the attention of one Keith Richards (yep, he of the Rolling Stones) who arranged a three-album deal with Atlantic Records.
The debut album, 1980’s ‘Catholic Boy’ is widely considered a classic while the track, ‘People Who Died’ - a rollicking, energised litany of Carroll’s previous friends and acquaintances who have passed on in varying circumstances - enjoyed radio success and even appeared on the soundtrack of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster, ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’, appearing in the film’s opening scene. The following albums - ‘Dry Dreams’ (1982) and ‘I Write Your Name’ (1984) - while being solid failed to match the Punk Rock ‘n’ Roll cool of the debut.
Although Carroll took a break from being actively involved in music until the release of ‘Pools Of Mercury’ some 14 years later in 1998, he remained a cult industry figure. You could find his lyrics on Blue Oyster Cult and Boz Scaggs albums and find him performing live with Ray Manzarek (formerly of The Doors) as part of a spoken word act. More recently his influence can be seen in the likes of Pearl Jam that recorded a version of ‘Catholic Boy’ with Carroll. More significantly, Rancid used his lyrics on ‘Junky Man’ and had Carroll recite the spoken word section of the song. Furthering his legacy has been Marilyn Manson and Drive By Truckers which have both recorded versions of his songs.
Carroll also published several further poetry collections: The Book of Nods (1986), Fear of Dreaming (1993) and Void of Course: Poems 1994-1997 (1998) and has released several spoken-word albums. Although having been out of the public eye for several years, it is reported that he had been working on a new novel for sometime - presumably the work he was pursuing at the time of the heart attack.
Carroll is survived by his brother Tom.

Personally, Carroll’s legacy has been primarily through music and his diaries. All three original albums deserve a listen but the debut album, ‘Catholic Boy’, stands testament to near-perfect Punk-tinged rock ‘n’ roll; it’s sneering, arrogant, confident and has a natural fluidity that only the best can match. Both The Basketball Diaries and The Downtown Diaries make rivetting reading, so much so that for a latter issue of Scanner, I made serious attempts at contacting Carroll for an interview. I got close but not quite close enough.